Notes from Solar Cabin

We are two humans and a hound setting down roots in the permafrost north of Fairbanks.
We left a lot of people we love down south, and hope these missives will help span some of those miles.


Northern Summer: Part II

.posted by peter.
Summer is almost over but still holding on by a thread, in my mind at least, since it’s just now the end of August. But in reality summer ended about two weeks ago – when it started to drop below 50 at night, and when the alder and tundra-style ground cover plants all started to change colors. Haven’t seen much color change on the birch and aspen yet, but there’s some, and I see more each day. Fall hits Alaska early. Winter isn’t far behind.

But summer has been great. We had wonderful visits from people we love and enjoy spending time with. Mary learned tons about the northern country and had fun up there, and we both finally got to see and spend time in (her more than me of course) the Brooks Range, the only mountain range above the arctic circle, and one of the most beautiful and unspoiled places I’ll probably every go.

Just for an update, the wasps basically died RIGHT after I wrote that last post. We got a spate of wet, cooler weather which did them in. What promised to be the worst season for wasps conceivable, fizzled, which is alright in my book. But next year, I will be ready.

We have a month till it snows, at the most. Here they say that the first flakes that fall are the last flakes that melt. And then this country shows its true colors – white, blue, pink, and black. Mary will start to wish she had sled dogs. I’ll start wishing we had a woodstove so I could chop some wood (an activity I love, and great exercise), and stoke a nice warm fire. One of these days.

Alaska is a land of extremes – that’s what they always say. And it’s pretty true. But summer in Alaska, as warm as it can get, and even with the endless sunshine, is not really what we all think of as summer. But winter… Alaska knows how to do winter. Alaska has got winter nailed.


Northern Summer :: Part I

.posted by peter.
written two weeks ago, but posted belatedly due to technical difficulties.

So far it’s been a pretty busy summer (hence the lack of posts). Mary’s been working tons driving people up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle, and I’ve been consumed with work and an intensive five week Abnormal Psychology class that I’ve been taking at the University. The final is this Thursday and I’m looking forward to two months with no schoolwork so that I can focus on finishing the pile of books that have accumulated half read from this past year – a bad habit of mine. At least I finish them eventually!

We crested the solstice hump last week, and I’m looking forward to having a nighttime again in about, oh, three weeks or so. Really, I love the light, and don’t have too much trouble sleeping, I just tend to miss the stars because they’re so brilliant up here. Also, since I work at the local Mental Health agency, I’ve noticed a lot of the clients having problems with getting adequate rest and knowing when to wind down. (When you work with the severely mentally ill, ‘wind down time’ is a nice part of the evening.) Clients with mood disorders, or schizoaffective disorder (sorta like bipolar but with psychotic features thrown in as a special added bonus) fair the worst it seems.

The bugs haven’t been as bad as I expected. Mary says up north they’re a whole lot worse. Personally, I don’t really mind mosquitoes all that much…I can relate to them, hey, they’re just looking for a hot meal. Plus, they smush pretty cleanly, and I myself don’t get welts from their bites. Flies and wasps though, are a different story. They like to hang out on poop and eat rotting animals, and that I just don’t understand. Really it’s the wasps that are causing us the main headaches. It’s actually been sort of epic.

Two or three weeks ago, Mary and I were planning a big, dire Solar post about the wasp situation. Fortunately, it has mellowed considerably, due to some cooler wetter weather. You see wasps are much more common up here than most anywhere else. The dry conditions of Alaska’s interior and a curious lack of natural predators make for perfect wasp country. (Actually voles really like eating wasps, but the vole population has been low the last few years.) Anyone who was in Fairbanks last summer will tell you that it was one of the worst seasons in memory - two folks died in town from anaphylaxis and pretty much everybody got stung at LEAST once. Everyone except for Mary, that is, who somehow escaped me and Nyssa’s unfortunate run in with the hive last August while we were all going for a walk. I was stung twice and my leg swelled up, turned beet red, and I developed a short lived benadryl addiction. Nyssa got stung so many times we were certain she’d at least get some nasty hives (since she’s very prone to them) and we had the emergency vet clinic number right by the phone all night. Miraculously she was fine. We counted 20 stings on her stomach alone.

Finally fall came and the wasps just dwindled and vanished from our lives. I had forgotten all about them until sometime in late May when they began to reappear. A spate of hot, dry weather invited all the dormant queens up from their slumber, and suddenly a nesting frenzy ensued. Everyday for a week we woke up to four or so wasps IN our cabin, and my mania began. I was being threatened in my home, and that is unacceptable.

I built soda bottle traps. I bought multiple forms of wasp spray. I bought spray insulation/sealer to shore up the cabins’ cracks and crevices. I even bought a long ladder so that I could have access to the eaves for spraying. When I submitted a request to our finance department for a turbo-charged handheld fogger weapon, it was rejected by finance minister Mary, but I still have aides working on the acquisition and one never knows in this town.

I was very worried about Duncan, the kitten. He has turned out to be an enthusiastic hunter of the wasps, and has no respect for their deadly power. On several occasions, I have had to hold/restrain him with one arm while slaughtering one of the window crazed fiends with the other. He once in fact executed a lunge toward one which resulted in him completely falling down the stairs (with a loud thud) only to immediately resume his pursuit. I admire his determination, and he can indeed be quite formidable (just ask Nyssa), but I doubt that even the most adrenaline fueled confrontation would go well for him. Fortunately, he has gradually mellowed in his response as the summer has progressed.

As much as it has worried me, Duncan’s interest has provided one very valuable asset to our struggle against the wasps. He’s like the canary in the mine. If the kitten is in a strange place or position, and very intent on something, nine times out of ten I can be sure that he’s found a wasp. I get a wasp killing device on my way and am ready when I arrive.

The best tool in my arsenal is the tennis racket shaped bug-zapper. You push a button, and the wired face of the zapper-racket electrifies. I use it by catching the wasp between the zapper and the window (or other surface), firing the juice, and then rubbing it around a bit so it can get exposure to multiple strands. Now, it’s important to note, that this will not kill the wasp. It only stuns them for a while. Death waits for them on the porch. I lay them down on the far edge away from the door for crunching, because smushed wasps and bees release a chemical that attracts others. Now, personally, if I knew some massive and inexplicable being was smushing people nearby, my response wouldn’t be to approach, but wasps, they aren’t like you and me. You can’t reason with them, and many of their behaviors are counter-intuitive, so it’s hard to stay ‘one step ahead.’ Nor do they act at random. Everyone in this town that I’ve asked for advice has said something different. In general, I find them to be a loathsome and vexing adversary.

Fortunately, June has been rainy enough to greatly minimize their activities. Also, I’ve heavily poisoned most of their haunts, and sealed up the cabin better. My traps haven’t worked yet, but I keep trying. So far I’ve caught hundreds of flies in one of my homemade soda bottle/smelly fish traps, but hardly any wasps. Flies I can do without as well, due to their aforementioned unwholesome enthusiasms. Still, they mostly keep to their territory, that being in the woods and in the outhouse (which just makes sense), and I respect them for that. And really, in all seriousness, I don’t have anything against wasps as long as they stay in the woods and don’t truly reproduce out of all proportion - they eat garden predators and have as much right to live as any other beast. But if they make a nest in my eve or under my porch, or come into my home and threaten me and mine, they will die. Simple as that.

Life on the frontier is hard. We face many challenges. Lack of a Dairy Queen is another example. But of course the rewards are many – summer has been beautiful. Next Monday or Tuesday we’re planning to go canoing, since my class will be over and neither of us work those days. And hopefully soon I can tag along on one of Mary’s sojourns to the Arctic Circle!


Staying at Solar

Our lease at Solar Cabin was set to run out on the 31st of May, and with a thirty-day notice clause we needed to tell our current landlord if we were staying or going by the 1st. Time was ticking. At the end of April, Peter and I saw an ad for a beautiful cabin just down the road. We called the number on the filer, holding our collective breath for the landlord to call back. After much dancing around and talking to the ever-sketchier seeming gentleman on the phone, we finally met him for an interview three days before the first of the month.

I loved the potential cabin. It has a couple of rooms, a huge woodstove, a shower and sauna, an enormous deck and sunroom (no toilet, though - but the path to the outhouse isn't through a swamp.) It is an old cabin, lived in for many years by many families and has the feel of a place well loved and thoroughly broken in. It has a few quirks, though. Dream Cabin is on the main (busy) road into town with waterlines that tend to freeze up in the dead of winter, an iffy stovepipe and a landlord that falls far to the end of the 'eccentric' continuum. Peter and I both know that this can be a little ... disconcerting ... in a landlord. He interviewed us with narrow eyes (behind pink-and-turquoise women's reading glasses) and a skeptical, rapid-fire cross-examination of our intentions and abilities more suited to a murder investigation. We left not knowing what to expect. But I had my heart set on the place.

In the mean time, Solar Cabin Landlord got wind that we were thinking of moving. She sprang into action, and soon had someone lined up willing to sign a lease. By the time we heard back from Dream Cabin Landlord that our references hadn't been home when he called, and so we had lost the lease, it was April 30th. I called Solar Cabin Landlord to talk about our options, and was immediately informed that we had to sign a year lease or move out. (We had been hoping for an extension through the summer.) Talk about a bummer of a day.

One day does not rental-hunting time make. We searched the paper and likely filer-spots in town frantically for other options, but decided in the end to hold the bird we had and not go sling shotting into May (already full of other things) wildly trying to hit something better and still within budget. Solar Cabin it is.

Not that we don't love it here. It is a cozy little place that we have made into a cozy little home. The vast deck is wonderful now that the weather has started compensating for the bitter interior winter, and the area is a safe if not overtly friendly place with a good network of roads and trails to walk on and neighbors we are starting to meet. We are out of town, but not too far out. We are comfortable here.

But we don't have a woodstove to stave off the winter chill (a generic heater just doesn't cut the gloom when sunshine only skims the horizon for a few hours, even if it technically keeps the place warm) and no arctic entry to keep the air from rushing out every time we open the door. The outhouse-honey-pot arrangement we don't mind, but a shower would have been nice. And living in one room is, well, living in one room, even if it is a bigish room by local cabin standards. Anyway, it seemed a lot smaller after walking through Dream Cabin's winding maze of add-ons and imagining stoking the woodstove for a late night read waiting for Peter to get home.

Extending Solar Cabin's lease has thrown us into an Upgrading Solar Frenzy. We finally took (my) sister-in-law Meg's wedding gift (designated cozy-chair funds) and found the perfect cozy chair for the corner we'd been saving. It lives up to its purpose, and there are other re-arrangements in the books for the next month or so. But it is a busy month. Maybe we'll switch things up in June instead. (THANKS MEG!!) For the record, this month in Solar marks the first time I have lived in one place for more than nine months since my sophomore year of college. I have to admit, part of me has been craving this stability (and dreading a possible move, even if to a Dream.) The Cozy Chair is an anchor I'm happy to have.

[find your happy place]

In the mean time, Summer has come in earnest. A few weeks ago, we had our first non-freezing night and the melting snow and muck are gone. Days are long (24 hours of visible light, long) and warm, and Nyssa is spending most of them stretched out in a coma of bliss on the porch. I have never felt like I earned a summer. I feel like I earned this one, and so far it has been perfect, even with Solar Cabin to look forward to for another year in Fairbanks.

PS. Check out my Photos from a recent trip up the Real Arctic. More on this later, but the pictures are too fun not to share!


Exhibits A & B

Nyssa and Duncan have a very special relationship. It is not every day that a powerful hound with "hunt down lions" programed into every cell of her being can coexist peacefully in a one-room, 700 square-foot cabin with a Very Small Cat. But they get along pretty well, with only occasional chasing (instigated on both sides) and hardly ever a growl or a hiss. The most endearing cat-dog behavior is hard to capture, mostly consisting of Duncan chewing on Nyssa's ears, and batting her about the snout. This works well, since Duncan's body and Nyssa's head are about the same size. Tonight, I was doing some studying on the couch. Nyssa and Duncan soon joined me for a warm evening cuddle. After awhile, Duncan began to display his affection by licking Nyssa's ear ... then chewing on it ... then chewing on her. I remembered that the video camera was in reach, and managed to catch a minute or so of the display.

While I was uploading this, I remembered that I had some webcam shots of early Nyssa-Duncan interaction, back when he was closer to four pounds. For the record, I'm not holding him for any of these shots - he stayed to battle the formidable doggie-nose of his own free kitten-will. Feisty little bugger. (That's mostly NPR's Marketplace in the background.)

PS: No kittens were harmed in the making of these films, but I think the dog came away with a few minor scratches.


Late Season Lights

When I went to let Nyssa out last night, there was quite a show overhead. Nights are getting shorter and shorter up here, with only about seven hours of starlight and going fast. I do miss the night sky in the summer! But at least Peter's late schedule keeps us awake to enjoy the last of the Northern Night Sky. Even without the aurora, the stars this week have been breathtaking.

The show last night was spectacular. I tried to take some pictures, but the lights were relatively dim and moving very fast. That made for some great viewing, but not such great pictures. But the above-zero temperatures outside were much more comfortable. Summer is on the way!

There is some debate about whether the Northern Lights make any perceptible noise. Scientists claim that there has been no hard proof of Aurora-originating sound, although may people claim they can hear the lights crackle and pop overhead. I do know one thing, though. There is a heck of a lot more howling when the sky starts dancing! The symphony the neighborhood dogs put on last night to accompany the show was haunting, a perfect soundtrack for the sky.


Ode to Dirt

The ground is still covered in snow, but the weather is warming up considerably and we are enjoying a sunny +50 degree weekend. We have heard that it is warmer here than in Texas today. I can hardly remember what cold feels like! The streets have been cleared of slushy, melting stuff and there are some places where there is actual DIRT showing through. I never thought this would be so exciting, but it is. The earth has been covered in impenetrable layers of snow since October, and a little color - even if that color is brown - is welcome and full of hope. When Peter and I saw our first patch on a walk, he stopped and knelt down in the snow to touch it. Such is one's reverence for the earth when it is beyond view, for Astronauts, Sailors ... and apparently winter-weary Alaskans.

Last weekend, Peter and I took a jaunt down to the Copper River Valley and Valdez. We needed to get out of town, and decided our classes could do without us for an evening. We packed the car and dog (who now spends most of her days sprawled in the sun on our porch) and with some trepidation left the cat home alone with two huge dishes of food. We woke early and drove to the edge of Wrangell St. Elias national park. At thirteen million acres, it is the largest national park in the United States, and when joined with its sister parks Kluane, Alsek and Tatshenshini in Canada and a few other wilderness preserves on the Alaskan panhandle, comprises the largest continuous tract of protected land in the world. And it's not just special to wilderness buffs like us, but recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The park contains 10 of the 15 highest peaks in North America, the largest sub-polar ice field and is thickly populated with all manner of northern wildlife. Unlike Yellowstone and even the much less accessible Denali, Wrangell St. Elias is not easy to get into and impossible to "see" by way of the traditional "driving through the National Park" American pastime. There are two rough, barely-maintained roads that make a tiny scratch into the park from the west and north-west. Maintained trails are negligible. If you really want to see the park, you have to be flown in on a small bush plane and dropped off with your pack and bear spray and map and hope you make it to your pick-up point to be flown out again. If the weather is good. And if you don't wind up as somebody's lunch.

On a small hike to stretch our (and Nyssa's) car-cramped legs near the road that leads to the park, Peter and I came across several tufts of three-inch-long, coarse brown hair on the snowy trail. Contemplating their origin, we wondered aloud if the bears were awake yet. We continued our discussion as we moved down the trail. Three steps more, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I saw a grizzly print as wide as my forearm in the snow on the side of the trail. We quickly decided that the bears were undeniably awake, and that we should probably be moseying our bear-spray and gun-free selves back to the car.

The drive into Valdez was nothing short of breathtaking. I won't even attempt to do it justice here. The coolest part of that leg was watching ice-climbers navigate the frozen waterfalls on the side of the canyon heading into town.
[see the climbers?]

[there they are!]

[hang on to that ice pick!]
Overall, it was a great trip to get away and celebrate spring (and a belated first-year anniversary.) And we arrived back in Fairbanks to wonderfully balmy temperatures, sunshine and increasingly visible patches of dirt. I have a feeling I won't be so giddy about this development as the town (and our street) turns into a mud pit as the rest of the snow pack succumbs to the sunlight.


A Theory of Relativity ...

Back in October, just a few short months after our arrival in the notoriously chilly interior, I wrote a little speculation on temperature and altitude in our new valley home. To my naive October post, blogger and former Goldstream Valley resident Colorado Columbine responded that once it's been down to forty below, ten below will feel like a heat wave. As the mercury plummeted into winter, quickly surpassing anything I'd ever experienced, we learned a new meaning of cold. But back in October, I didn't believe it a word of it.

Warm southern readers, I Do Now. We have found, true to her experience, that after a few days at thirty below (or several months at twenty below) anything nearing zero sounds tropical. Going outside in boxer shorts and snowboots to get something from the car at ten above is pleasant. Today, with the late cold snap finally (everyone knock on wood ... I'm serious ... do it now) fading into daytime temperatures closer to 25, I took a walk with just a hoodie and jeans - the same thing I was wearing on 60 degree evenings last summer.

Not only do I believe in the power of relative temperature, I have empirical proof, in the form of our notoriously cold-despising desert hound, that the phenomenon is not psychosomatic. In October, with temperatures getting close to 32, she refused to be outside for more time than it took her to do her business and sprint back through the door. And heaven help us if that door wasn't open for her headlong dash back to the heater. This week, with post-Equinox sunlight pouring in and the temperature hovering around 15 degrees, Nyssa demanded to be let out of the house and proceeded to sniff around the porch and yard for twenty minutes without a glance back at the door.

[heater worshipping doggie]

As winter trailed on in the lower 48, friends of mine often caught themselves complaining about their weather, then trailing off awkwardly with a "well, I guess that's not cold to you anymore ..." The thing is, it is still cold to me. I still remember (with a shiver) the bone-chilling ice winds in Chicago, and what a good cold-front in Texas feels like when you are used to eighty degree spring days. Those places remain cold in my memory, even though I've ticked off -40 on my been-there-done-that list (expecting worse, thanks Global Warming.) In the end, I'll take the deep, dry, dead-still cold of this interior winter to the damp, numbing gale funneled through Chicago's skyscrapers any day, no matter what the thermometer says.